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Donald McKayle

Choreographer and educator Donald McKayle was born on July 6, 1930 in New York City, New York to Eva Wilhelmina Cohen McKayle and Philip Augustus McKayle. Inspired by a Pearl Primus performance, he began dancing his senior year in high school, and won a scholarship to the New Dance Group in 1947.

In 1948, McKayle choreographed his first piece of work with the New Dance Group, and premiered his solo piece, Saturday's Child. From 1951 to 1969, McKayle founded and directed his own dance company, Donald McKayle and Company, which premiered his first major work entitled Games in 1951. McKayle then went on to choreograph masterworks Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder, District Storyville and Songs of the Disinherited. Golden Boy (1964) was his first Broadway production, followed by I'm Solomon (1969) and Dr. Jazz (1975). McKayle directed and choreographed Raisin (1974), which was awarded a Tony for best musical. He was responsible for the entire concept, staging and choreography of the award-winning Sophisticated Ladies (1981). McKayle has also choreographed for films, including Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1970), The Great White Hope (1972), and The Minstrel Man (1976). McKayle has also choreographed stage acts for singers such as Harry Belafonte and Rita Moreno. In 2001, he choreographed the monumental ten-hour production of Tantalus.

The repositories for McKayle’s work include the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, the Cleveland San Jose Ballet, and the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre. He served as head of the Inner City Repertory Dance Company from 1970 to 1974, and then as choreographer for the Limon Dance Company since 1995. In all, McKayle choreographed over ninety performances for dance companies in the U.S., Canada, Israel, Europe and South America. He has taught at Bennington College, the Juilliard School, the American Dance Festival, and in Europe. McKayle served as dean of the School of Dance at the California Institute of the Arts, and as professor of dance and the artistic director for the University of California, Irvine Dance.

McKayle has received numerous honors and awards, including an Outer Critics Circle Award, a NAACP Image Award, the Capezio Award, the Samuel H. Scripps/American Dance Festival Award,  the American Dance Guild Award, a Living Legend Award from the National Black Arts Festival, two Choreographer’s Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Dance/USA Honors, the Martha Hill Lifetime Achievement Award, the Annual Award from the Dance Masters of America, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dance Under the Stars Choreography Festival, the Black College Dance Exchange Honors, the Dance Magazine Award, and the American Dance Legacy Institute’s Distinguished and Innovative Leadership Award, among others. In 2005, McKayle was honored at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and presented with a medal as a Master of African American Choreography. He has been named by the Dance Heritage Coalition as "one of America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: the first 100."

McKayle is the author of the 2002 autobiography, Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life.

McKayle passed away on April 6, 2018.

Donald McKayle was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on December 17, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.342

Sex

Male

Interview Date

12/17/2013 |and| 7/28/2014

Last Name

McKayle

Maker Category
Middle Name

Cohen

Organizations
Schools

New Dance Group

City College of New York

P.S. 101 Andrew Draper School

St. Charles Borromeo School

P.S. 46 Arthur Tappan School

Junior High School 118, William H. Hines

DeWitt Clinton High School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Donald

Birth City, State, Country

New York

HM ID

MCK16

Favorite Season

Spring

State

New York

Favorite Vacation Destination

None

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

7/6/1930

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

United States

Favorite Food

All Food

Death Date

4/6/2018

Short Description

Choreographer and educator Donald McKayle (1930 - 2018) was the author of Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life. His major choreographic works include Games, Rainbow Round My Shoulder, District Storyville, Raisin, and Sophisticated Ladies.

Employment

New Dance Group

Donald McKayle and Company

Inner City Repertory Dance Company

Limon Dance Company

University of California, Irvine

California Institute of the Arts

Bennington College

Juilliard School

American Dance Festival

Favorite Color

Green, Purple

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Donald McKayle's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle describes his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle talks about his mother's upbringing

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle describes his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle talks about his father's immigration to the United States

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle describes his parent's personalities and who he takes after

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle talks about his brother

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Donald McKayle describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Donald McKayle remembers the Harlem community in New York City

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Donald McKayle describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle talks about his early experiences of religion

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle remembers the Great Depression

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle describes his early involvement in the arts

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle talks about his Jamaican heritage

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers the Harlem River Houses in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle talks about his early influences

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle remembers his election as class president at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle talks about his Jewish heritage

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Donald McKayle talks about his early cultural influences

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle talks about his piece, 'Her Name Was Harriet'

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle talks about the popular culture of the 1940s

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle remembers Pearl Primus

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle remembers joining the New Dance Group

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers the African American dancers of the 1940s

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle talks about his dance training

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle remembers his first pieces of original choreography

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle talks about forming Donald McKayle and Company

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle talks about Donald McKayle and Company

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle talks about the black arts community in New York City

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle remembers the early productions by Donald McKayle and Company

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle remembers 'House of Flowers,' pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle talks about Geoffrey Holder

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle remembers his marriages

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle remembers 'House of Flowers,' pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle recalls touring with the Martha Graham Dance Company

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle recalls the original Broadway production of 'West Side Story'

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle remembers creating 'Rainbow Round My Shoulder,' pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle recalls the success of Donald McKayle and Company

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle describes his start as film and television choreographer

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers moving to Los Angeles, California

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle talks about his Broadway production of 'Raisin,' pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle remembers Loraine Hansberry

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle describes his role in original Broadway production of 'West Side Story'

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle talks about 'Rainbow Round My Shoulder'

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle remembers the international tour of 'Rainbow Round My Shoulder'

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle remembers the television premiere of 'They Called Her Moses'

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers creating 'District Storyville'

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle remembers choreographing and performing in 'On the Sound'

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle talks about his television choreography

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle remembers working on the Broadway production of 'Golden Boy'

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle remembers the cast of 'Golden Boy'

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle talks about his choreography for 'The Ed Sullivan Show'

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle talks about the choreography for 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks'

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle remembers leading the Inner City Arts Repertory Dance Company

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers choreographing 'Songs of the Disinherited'

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle remembers choreographing the film 'The Great White Hope'

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle Donald McKayle remembers his directorial debut in 'Raisin'

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle remembers his television special, 'Free to Be... You and Me'

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Donald McKayle talks about his retirement from dancing

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Donald McKayle remembers choreographing the film 'Minstrel Man'

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Donald McKayle remembers the Broadway production of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Donald McKayle talks about the success of 'Sophisticated Ladies'

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Donald McKayle talks about his teaching career

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Donald McKayle remembers his celebrity collaborators

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Donald McKayle remembers his production of 'Tantalus'

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Donald McKayle describes his autobiography, 'Transcending Boundaries: My Dancing Life'

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Donald McKayle talks about his awards and honors

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Donald McKayle reflects upon his career

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Donald McKayle talks about his favorite choreographed piece

Tape: 8 Story: 10 - Donald McKayle reflects upon his legacy and plans for the future

Tape: 8 Story: 11 - Donald McKayle talks about his family

Tape: 8 Story: 12 - Donald McKayle talks about contemporary dance techniques

Tape: 8 Story: 13 - Donald McKayle describes how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$5

DAStory

4$2

DATitle
Donald McKayle remembers joining the New Dance Group
Donald McKayle remembers creating 'Rainbow Round My Shoulder,' pt. 1
Transcript
When did you first consider--is this when you first considered dancing?$$After seeing Pearl Primus, yeah. I, I formed a--I worked that next week and we had meetings at Club L'Ouverture, I said, "I saw this wonderful woman dance and we should have--we should make--have a dance group here." And I asked other members of the club to come in to rehearsals. I, I was rehearsing people. Didn't know a thing, but (laughter) rehearsing people and making up dances, choreographing before I knew anything.$$That's something, so you just started, you know.$$(Makes sound), yeah. And then I went to audition at the New Dance Group for the scholarship and I got it, although I was sure I would be eliminated 'cause I didn't know anything. But they gave me a scholarship, they saw something.$$So what was the first thing--can you think of what you--what did you choreograph, I mean what did you--$$I choreographed a spiritual, 'Go Down Moses.' And I had all my fellow club members in a chain going around and they were bent over, things they could do, and I was improvising in the middle, breaking through trying to get out. When I think of it, I smile. It was so innocent and quite wonderful.$$So right after graduation [from DeWitt Clinton High School, Bronx, New York] or did you become a part of the New Dance Group before graduation or after?$$Before, 1947 was when I started the New Dance Group and I graduated about the same time, yeah.$$Okay, 1947, all right. She actually danced to 'Strange Fruit' too, right?$$Yes. (Singing), "Southern trees bare a strange fruit." She danced to a poem though, it wasn't sung.$$Well, tell us about your early days with the New Dance Group?$$Well, I got a scholarship and I was--I was going at that time to college, to City College [City College of New York, New York, New York] and so I would go and take early morning classes, about eight o'clock classes, then I'd go down to the New Dance Group which was on 59th Street between 5th [Avenue] and Madison [Avenue] at the time. And I would work with Sophie Maslow, Jane Dudley, William Bales, the New Dance Group company, and then I'd go back and finish more classes at CCNY, go home, have dinner, do homework, that was my life. And I started choreographing with the company in '51 [1951].$$Now, was this when you performed 'Saturday's Child' [Donald McKayle]?$$I did that first at the Club Baron in Harlem [New York, New York]. And that was Paul Robeson was part of it, and [HistoryMaker] Leon Bibb, [HistoryMaker] Harry Belafonte. I was a youngster in the group. And I did 'Saturday's Child,' Countee Cullen's poem.$$Okay, so this was a part of a larger performance of?$$No I was, I, I made--I made it as a solo for me. I spoke the poem and danced at the same time, which was unusual, people didn't do that, do that. So it was a dramatic dance and I was a homeless person.$$It was in a program that included Paul Robeson, and--$$Well, Harry Belafonte gave a benefit for Paul because he couldn't work and he couldn't leave the country. And I had done this dance and they asked me to do it at the Paul--and they said Paul would sing for me 'By 'n' Bye' and I said, "Okay I'd love to." I couldn't believe it. And I went down to the Golden Gate Ballroom, which was on Lenox Avenue [Malcolm X Boulevard], a little bit down from the Savoy [Savoy Ballroom, New York, New York] in the 40s, yeah. And I got there and there was no stage, just a bandstand with a piano, so it was large enough for a grand piano and then a few steps for the other instruments and it was carpeted. And there was Paul in the nook of the piano and Lawrence Brown [Lawrence Benjamin Brown] was sitting at the keyboard and I said, "Well if he's gonna sing for me, I'm gonna dance up and down this carpeted steps, and I did." But that was 'By 'n' Bye,' I didn't do 'Saturday's Child' at that particular performance. But it was very important for me. Big moment in my career.$All right, 'cause our next, next note is that in '59 [1959] you, you produced 'Rainbow Round My Shoulder' [Donald McKayle], right?$$Yes.$$Okay. Well, what is that about, and what--?$$'Rainbow Round My Shoulder' is about prisoners on a chain gang in the Deep South and they're brought to work on the roads to break rock to make gravel to lay the rock--gravel bed and then they put macadam and tar, blacktop on it for the roads. In fact the first song is, "Picks, rocks and gravel to make a solid road, but it wouldn't get done lessen captain had a gun. 'Cause is always being watched over by the overseer." And they're men that are prisoners and they dream of freedom and freedom comes to them in the guise of a woman. So there's one woman and seven men in the dance. And it's a--it's a huge success. As I said I've done it for other companies, I did it for the Batsheva Company [Batsheva Dance Company] in Israel, and I did it in Paris [France], did it in Buenos Aires [Argentina]. So it's a--it's a lasting dance.$$So this is--there's a theme although you've conceived of it as being something that's particular to the United States or something?$$Yes, it's definitely an American dance and the music are chain gang songs, and I got--the ones that I use in the--in the actual production were gathered by John [John A. Lomax, Jr.] and Alan Lomax on location as the men were working. There's one piece as a solo for the woman, it's called "Jinx Blues" and that was--she was heard a woman singing this song while she was washing clothes at the river and he recorded it on one of his field trips. (Singing), "I had a gal she was long and tall and moved her body like a cannonball." That's the female solo. And the woman who did it first, Mary Hinkson, was a dancer with the Martha Graham Company [Martha Graham Dance Company]. And in fact, on YouTube you can see her and me and Matt Turney dancing in a jazz piece called 'On the Sound' sitting--Long Island Sound. And that was done in '62 [1962] so we stayed as a kind of nice knit group there.$$How would you characterize your dancing technique in those days?$$It was very fluid, athletic, but very sort of muscular rather than light.$$Okay, okay. And what did dance critics say about you in those days?$$I got very good reviews from critics. And 'Rainbow' was hailed as a masterpiece.$$And it resonated with audiences abroad as well?$$Oh very much. I remember when we did it, well, I didn't do it, it was done by the Dayton Company, Dayton Contemporary [Dayton Contemporary Dance Company] in Russia. At the end of the performance there was just silence and then suddenly applause. And Charles Reinhart [Charles L. Reinhart] who was a director went out to the audience to see what was wrong. He said it was just like seeing your own history right in front of them in another form. So they just couldn't believe what they were seeing. And I did it, I went to Russia afterwards and I set it on Russian dancers. That was a wonderful experience.$$Okay, okay, so, so this is--how long did you perform--I mean did it perform for a season and then you--$$Well it performed for many seasons, it's a classic piece that's brought back by a company. And I'll--they'll call me to come in and restage it.